Sophie Downey (aka SaxOffender) has opened her new exhibition Appetite For Production, raising awareness and funds for prostate cancer.
She answers some questions about the inspiration and what to expect.
This exhibition's goal is to raise awareness about prostate cancer. Where did that inspiration come from?
I am only able to go on this art/music journey as a result of my mother dying from breast cancer in 2012. She had beaten the disease in mid 2005, but after years of clear results, it came back with a vengeance and in the space of a few months she was gone. Witnessing what it did to her was one of those experiences that never leave. I was executor of her complicated estate, which took me further and further from my barrister’s practice at Bar Chambers. When my inheritance came through, I went to New York to the New York Studio School of Art. That is where I made the decision to roll the dice on my creative abilities. So I always wanted to do something that contributes to the fight against the disease, for mum, as a tribute to the legacy she left me. The prostate cancer inspiration will make you smile. When I ‘adjourned’ my 16 year law career, many friends and associates were dumbfounded. They were continually challenging me: “what makes you different to any other starving artist? What makes you different to any other starving musician? What makes you think you can just wake up one day, decide to paint pretty pictures all the time, and earn a cent from it, let alone playing that saxophone?”. So I looked for things that made me different. I had spent two months at the Elder Conservatorium in the Jazz Performance course before I withdrew to go to New York. I began to understand why 'Stairway To Heaven' is, indeed, art; sustaining, fascinating, moving art, all the more amazing because Jimmy Page pulled off that solo as a man barely out of his 20s. Likewise, as I struggled with how to answer the people who undermined my confidence in following a creative pathway, I looked at people like David Gilmour, who I understand was facing a career in law, and had Cambridge University qualifications, and I felt this admiration for him. As a young man in his twenties, and very bright, he simply said “no” to the conservative, security conscious option. I looked at the image of him playing ‘Money’, frowning over his Gibson, and thought “wow, he’s got more balls than me”. When I explained my plan to earn myself an honest living to the people who had questioned me ‘adjourning’ my law career, they shook their heads. I got branded as a shameless, disgraceful show off. People sneered at me, saying “how many talents do you have?”, as if it were something to be ashamed of. I felt more ashamed as I tried to get in contact with people like David Gilmour, and consistently got no where. Silence, silence and more silence. My little yellow SA Cancer Council boxes were left empty, or had coins that I put in them myself to keep them from falling on the floor. I felt a great empathy for David Gilmour at that time, maybe because he always seems like he’s about to burst into tears when he does 'Wish You Were Here', and I identified with that sense of loss. I saw that he did a lot of humanitarian work for political refugees in Russia. I was so stung by people saying I was an appalling show off, that I decided to sacrifice my art for humanitarian causes. As people in Adelaide treated me worse and worse, my commitment to donating as much as I could to charity became stronger. The more I learn about prostate cancer and the more people I see it has touched, in its nasty, silent way, preying on embarrassment and denial, the more I know that this is the right thing for me to be doing. If Pants Downey can pull her pants down at David Gilmour, then you can pull your pants down for a test that takes less time than it takes to play ‘Money’, and it might save your life.
How do you plan on incorporating the deaths of greats like Bowie and Prince?
I want to do a series of paintings of Bowie and Prince that are not just portraits or pictures from someone else’s photograph. I want this to be something I create when I am myself embroiled in their songs, so that when I look at the painting I hear the tunes. I want other people to get that experience too. Whether it’s by putting excerpts of lyrics in there, or having actual audio that goes with the painting, I am still working out.
In terms of the visual elements, what can audiences expect?
Guts. Colour. Energy. Bold brush strokes, paintings that ooze passion and drive. Sometimes I get too frenetic. That’s partly because I am anxious about squandering my mother’s legacy, so I work like a freight train. Hence my love of 'Thunderstruck'! I am trying to be more disciplined now, focusing on one performer, not overloading the composition with distractions, using a more subdued palette. But I want the images to get more hard hitting. I want you to get a lump in your throat when you look at Nick Cave. I want him to, too. That has happened before; sometimes I get something at a level that I don’t understand, but people have tears in their eyes and say I have painted something in their soul they didn’t think anyone could see. Also, audiences can rely on me not to shirk away from the truth; I am never scared of hard subjects. Art helped me leave depression and alcoholism behind. Law and life events had driven me into the ground and I was drinking myself to death. I never believed in the concept of a substitute addiction, but using my mind creatively and positively means that I don’t watch TV, I don’t read papers, I don’t go a day without doing something art or music related. I am by no means a teetotaller, god no! I just find that the beers I used to slam down go warm. I soak my sax reeds in them now.
You're known as the SaxOffender (good pun….) where did this come from?
It’s an irony, it’s a pun, it’s an ideal, it’s a “you call me this, in fact I’m the opposite”. I did work with sex offenders during my career in law. I did both prosecution and defence, so I have an understanding of what sex offending consists of, the horror that it creates, the cyclical nature of how it operates on one generation and then the next, the victims, the perpetrators, my father was a psychiatrist and tried to treat sex offenders too; so I don’t indirectly refer to that topic flippantly. I started referring to myself as the SaxOffender when I kept being treated like a criminal in the music industry. I heard about a perception of me going around as someone who would bomb other bands’ shows. I was so upset – I would never, ever knowingly stand up and violate someone’s space for the sheer rudeness of it. I am actually very shy. I am also acutely conscious of musician manners, like shutting up when the band leader is talking, etc.
When (and why) did you make the shift from lawyer (for 16 years!!!) to musician/artist?
It started happening in 2010 when I was very depressed and lonely. A colleague said “come on this motorbike tour of India. There’s a space that just freed up. It will clear your head”. The trip around India, from Delhi, to the Himalayas and back, on a 1950 style Royal Enfield motorbike with Mike and Denise Ferris of Ferris Wheels, 18 blokes and 1 other woman, all of whom had regular motorbiking experience in comparison to myself nearly killed me. Every day I faced massive trucks bearing down on me, traffic jams, mountain ranges, altitude sickness, riding through snow, mud, rivers, sand, ice; it was crazy. But I learnt so much about life, and that I could change things, and that I am a survivor. The journey from there to my mother’s death in 2012 saw me try to find my way in law. But my loneliness was getting worse, my depression deeper. I wasn’t playing any music and I hadn’t done art for months and months when my mother died. I had been hospitalised a few times with near fatal alcohol levels. Something had to change. In New York I found people who adored eccentricity and tenacity. I saw world class achievement by people who just strive and strive. My paintings were the best work I have ever produced, even in the darkness of my depression and confusion as to where to go with my life.
What's next for SaxOffender?
Exhibitionism, Downey Under style. I would love to have a show that tributes the Stones and runs alongside their show. “Who do you think you are?” I hear you say. Doesn’t matter. This isn’t about me. It’s about prostate cancer sufferers, it’s about unsung heroes, it’s about celebrating great live performance, it’s about saying thanks for songs that you listen to in your darkest, lowest hours. Between now and November 2018, I want to talk to as many rock stars as I can, about how the Rolling Stones have influenced them, akin to how the Anh Do show is run; I interview them and paint them while we talk. The paintings go to them as thanks for agreeing to be interviewed, but they stay in the collection until after November 2018, and if the star wants to donate them to the fight against cancer, by all means. I’m not a refugee from Vietnam, but in a sense I am a refugee from the law. I’m not as funny or as endearing as Anh Do, but my mishaps and my mega fails make people laugh. I can’t cook for shit either, so at the end of the show, instead of making Vietnamese Rolls, we make ROCK N’ ROLL. All I need is a film crew. And SLASH.